tv Dateline NBC NBC July 23, 2012 3:05am-4:00am EDT
>> what really happened "while they were sleeping"? welcome to "dateline," everyone, i'm lester holt. it's one of those cases that everyone thought they knew the answer to, a husband murdered in the middle of the night. it seems strange no one else in the house that night was hurt, including his wife, sleeping by his side. stranger still was who the killer ultimately turned out to be. here's keith morrison. >> reporter: it was cold the night the full moon rose. february cold. in the desert valley that spilled down from reno, nevada.
and in that moonlight, all silver pale, the wind worried that gray ends of winter grass, whipped and cried up the driveway around the corner of the house, whistled past the unlocked door. something evil afoot, something here inside. when the moon peered through the window and into the master bedroom, a little after 3:00 in the morning. >> he's really dead. >> what's really dead? >> my husband. >> reporter: strange the things that happen to people under a full moon. good people, not-so-good people. under that moon that night, it was hard to tell which was which, who was who. >> this is a case built on lies and deception and cat and mouse. who knew what it was. >> reporter: but the story when it began back in 2005 was about love, or what certainly felt like it. in fact, fair to say it was two kinds of love. there was what happened to ben when he met melissa. >> as soon as he met melissa, he
was something i had never seen. just, you know, just for no reason he would call and say i love you. >> reporter: he's a changed man? >> absolutely. he was happy. melissa really made the difference. >> reporter: and if anybody would know, his best friends would, cindy and scott graham. >> ben was family. i mean, he was family. >> reporter: and then there was ben's other love, brightest thing in his life, the one good thing that came from his first marriage, alyssa. >> everybody said that he loved me more than anything. and i think it's true. >> reporter: quite true, of course. so there was a little jockeying at first, two women, one man. even if one of the women was just 3. >> our first date, alyssa was there. we were eating. i was just trying to talk to ben and kind of get to know him. she is like -- alyssa is like don't talk to my dad. >> i remember meeting her. i didn't really like her. she was talking to my dad.
>> reporter: more than talking to him, as it soon turned out, ben and moelissa moved in together a month later. sort of thing a 3-year-old finds hard to understand. >> and she said i love you. and i said don't talk to my dad that way. >> reporter: but as we said, it was a love story. then for both of them. as jamie heart, the friend and future bridesmaid put it -- >> he was truly her best friend and he was the best dad. that's all he cared about was alyssa. that was his priority, to take care of her. >> reporter: so it was ben, melissa and alyssa. >> he was so involved in every aspect of her life. they were really like two peas in a pod. >> reporter: and one september day in 2006, as the sun was setting into the sierra nevada mountains, ben and melissa got married. the ceremony at nearby lake tahoe. melissa was a glowing bride. alyssa, the little flower girl. >> it wasn't just melissa and
ben getting married. it was melissa marrying alyssa, too. >> seriously. they made a particular ceremony of it. >> alyssa, will you promise to share in the love of this family? if so, will you please say i will? >> i will. >> i got her a little bracelet. i had it engraved, letting her know that i will always love her as my own. and gave it to her that day. >> and from that moment on, alyssa called melissa mom. how did that make you feel? >> happy. very happy. couple they were. >> for her to be my wife is a blessing.>> tt's what you wait your life. >> reporter: what were your plans? >> to buy a house and to have babies and have a family. >> reporter: they eventually moved here, a three-bedroom ranch in the carson valley, looking up toward the sierra
nevadas. alyssa spent half her time with ben and melissa. the other time with her birth mom, ben's ex-wife, dawn. but above all, what ben really wanted was to have his little girl permanently. >> he never thought that he could have his daughter. and i was like, yeah, you can. you could. >> reporter: and he did. he won custody. >> it was him and his daughter and that's what he had always wanted. >> reporter: and then the little household grew. melissa's teenage brother, craig, moved in. and then winter came. and the wind. and on february 20th, 2008, the moon rose full over the carson valley. after dinner, ben, melissa, her teenage brother, craig, and little alyssa settled in the den to watch a movie. melissa remembers falling asleep on the couch, waking up with a start. >> thinking i was late for work. it was like 2:30 in the morning. i was like, oh, i'm not late. so i went and got into bed.
>> reporter: crawled in with ben, she said. moonlight on the covers. warmth inside. >> about an hour later is when i was woke up by the smell and then a loud noise. and my ears were ringing. at first, i thought i was dreaming. >> a smell? >> yeah. it was a smell of the gunpowder. >> gunpowder smell? >> yes. >> reporter: she looked over to ben, saw by the light of the moon he appeared to have slept through whatever it was. she nudged him. he didn't stir. >> i was like okay, i'll go check it out. so, i walked around our bed and got about halfway down the hallway and realized our front door was open. >> but you didn't see anybody? >> nope. >> reporter: halfway down the hall she said, cold air rushing in. she knew something was very wrong. she ran back to the bedroom, turned on the light. >> i went to go wake him up and then i could see him. >> yeah. hard to get that one out of your
head, isn't it? >> yeah. [ sirens ] >> reporter: and that's her call to 911 and the detective who rushed over to find out what happened and discovered that he could not tell. >> you've got the wife. you've got a small 6-year-old child and you've got a 15-year-old boy in the house. and you've got everybody saying they don't know what happened. >> when we come back, how did everyone else survive that night without a scratch? the investigation begins and melissa is at the very center. >> i'm happy to solve the problem. >> a dramatic police interrogation when "while they were sleeping" continues. every day, an average of 5,000 people switch from cascade to finish dishwasher detergent. that's about 150,000 a month, over 2 million people so far.
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i was just confused and shocked because at this point, i still felt like i was asleep. >> reporter: on february 21st, 2008 at 3:00 in the morning, melissa oxley called 911. >> okay. so this gun noise was like a gunshot? >> yeah. i tried to wake up my husband and he is dead. >> reporter: it certainly was. ben oxley was shot pointblank in the head. and yet melissa, lying in bed right next to him, was unharmed. her daughter was 6 years old and completely unaware of what just happened, asked to see her father. >> i want to see my dad. i want to see my dad. i told her you can't. you can't go see your dad. >> reporter: it was a little
after 3:00 a.m. when detective ron elgas got the call. do you remember getting that call? >> yeah, because i was sleeping. >> reporter: he woke up fast to a very big problem. a killing. just didn't make sense. >> appearing like a ghost has done this. no evidence, no weapon. everybody in the house says i don't know. >> a ghost? >> yeah. that's what it feels like because you have no idea. >> reporter: how was it possible melissa hadn't seen the person who'd shot ben? she'd been lying right next to him. why was she unharmed? >> that's kind of a testy little red flag started popping up. okay, this doesn't seem right. >> reporter: and had craig, melissa's teenage brother truly slept through the whole thing as he claimed? >> i opened my eyes and right in my face was a bunch of barrels from a machine gun. >> reporter: it was police guns he was looking at, police who had already discovered shotgun shells on craig's bedroom dresser. >> here comes another red flag. is this a possibility?
he is faking? >> reporter: melissa, craig, and little alyssa were taken to the sheriff's department at 4:00 a.m., an hour after the shooting. melissa's best friend jamie got a phone call. >> it was alyssa. and she was just hysterically crying. i'm at the police station. come down here. come down here. my daddy's been shot. >> reporter: by the time jamie arrived, melissa was grilled by detectives. >> detective elgas has questions. lots of them. so many things about this murder didn't make sense. >> you were right there? >> the other thing i don't understand is why somebody shoots him and you don't see anything. >> i don't know. >> reporter: maybe it was the man ben warned her about, she said, a rough customer who once dated ben's ex-wife, dawn, and apparently threatened to kill dawn and any man she had been with. was the story true?
just to be safe, detective elgas sent officers to dawn's house, where they woke her up, sleeping but unharmed. and discovered that the man in question was hundreds of miles away when the murder happened. so again, the questions were for melissa. >> sometimes, people know more than they want to tell or share. >> i honestly don't know. i don't know. >> alyssa was 6 by this time, was the only person who remembered seeing anything unusual and she told the detective right away. >> well, i was fast asleep. i woke up and i heard this creek. i saw someone walking in. and i just -- i went back in. >> do you know who they were? >> i don't know who it was. >> she saw a shadow in her doorway looking at her and then the shadow left. she went back to sleep and then melissa came in and grabbed her and was talking to 911. >> reporter: the detective discovered the bullet that killed ben was a number eight
birdshot, same ammunition they discovered in craig's room. and so the question to craig -- >> i apologize for doing it, but i have to. did you kill ben? >> no, i did not. >> and sure enough, when they tested him for gunshot residue or blood castoff, he was clean. could not have fired that gun. and so back to melissa. >> reporter: because there was blood on melissa and gunshot residue. >> i don't know what happened. >> just the truth is all i'm hoping to get.
>> i am. >> reporter: melissa's friend jamie was there when she came out of the interrogation room. >> i mean melissa just dropped to the floor when she saw me. and she had a little bit of blood on her. she just said, "i didn't do this." and, "i know you didn't do it." >> reporter: but jamie knew there were others, and not just the police, who were very suspicious of melissa. >> she's the kind of suspect, she's the wife. she was laying in bed with him. doesn't make sense that she wasn't shot. >> did melissa do it? geez, i hope not. but i mean she could have. why wasn't she shot? >> i thought if she did commit the murder, she's going to make a mistake. you can only live that lie so long. >> coming up -- a new clue. what police believe might be a reason for murder. >> a $400,000 life insurance policy. she had the motivation to want this to happen. >> when "dateline" continues.
>> reporter: melissa oxley was just 27 years old and already a widow. her 36-year-old husband, ben, shot dead while he slept in bed right next to her. as far as she could tell, said melissa, the shooter managed to break into the house, walk right into the master bedroom, shoot ben without harming her and leave not a trace of evidence behind. the case boggled detective ron elgas' mind. >> is this a murder-for-hire? what could this be? >> reporter: melissa's closest friend believed her when she insisted she had nothing to do with it, in fact, she lost the love of her life. and that now she and those around her were probably in terrible danger. >> because you don't know who did it. you don't know if they're going
to come back for melissa, if melissa was supposed to be in that. >> reporter: melissa, meanwhile, tried to be a source of comfort for her 6-year-old stepdaughter, alyssa. the little girl's whole world had been destroyed, leaving her now in a world of chaos. and with her home and love nest now a crime scene, melissa and alyssa moved in with the woman who had been bridesmaid at the wedding, jamie, and it was at night when the curtains were drawn that jamie watched melissa reading with pain. >> many nights of crying in the middle of the night. i would hear her. i just kind of went and laid in bed with her. >> i didn't sleep. i couldn't sleep. >> just getting into a bed after that happened -- >> i didn't want to.
>> so where would you sleep? >> on the floor. >> reporter: and if the pain and suffering of losing her husband wasn't hard enough, melissa was a lead suspect and not just in the eyes of the police. >> because nobody, including the public, including the family has had any idea why this would happen. they're all grasping at straws, this possibility, that possibility. >> reporter: ben's sister was certain that melissa arranged ben's murder and wasn't afraid to make it known around town. >> she had a following of all these people. it's always the wife, you know? >> reporter: so did that mean little alyssa, just 6 years old, so vulnerable, was living with a murderer? alyssa began to spend more time with her mother, dawn's, house and one day while she was there, ben's sister warned her about the stepmom she had come to love. >> she told me that she thought my stepmom killed my dad that night. >> must have been pretty weird to hear that. >> yeah. i didn't believe it.
>> you didn't believe it at all? >> no. >> reporter: but if alyssa didn't believe it, others did. and before long, they had more ammunition because of something else the detective discovered. >> a $400,000 life insurance policy. it sounds a lot like she had the motivation to want this to happen. >> reporter: and once again, melissa found herself answering difficult questions. >> i didn't even know about the insurance policy. i guess i was sort of naive to it. we were looking at it for retirement. >> reporter: while the investigation went on, the insurance company held back any payments. while the whispers went around. it was shocking really. ben had been dead just a few months. and melissa was dating already. >> it was sort of -- it was like if i didn't do it then, you almost would get stuck in this rut of never doing it. i would have just hung up the towel and been done.
>> put on a black dress and be a widow the rest of your life? >> yeah. >> reporter: detective elgas, of course, was keeping track and trying not to be judgmental. >> she has to do what she needs to do to heal. it doesn't mean i wasn't paying attention to what was going on. >> reporter: months passed and he pushed aside the leaves, a certain clarity began to emerge. despite his own early suspicions and those of others, hard evidence against melissa just didn't materialize. in fact, he couldn't help thinking -- >> she probably didn't do it. she was so startled, she went into a fight or flight response and just jumped out of bed. and then went to a normal reaction which is what's going on? >> reporter: that's when she discovered he has been shot. >> but there was another reason melissa dropped down the detective's list of suspects. and that reason was a certain someone else who it became clear
did not like that love story we told you about. not one bit. >> i said what did you do? what did you do? and she said what do you mean what did i do? you've known me all these years and you would think that i would do something like that? and i said, absolutely. >> when we come back, a whole new theory of the crime. a whole new list of suspects eager to share secrets. >> i said no. >> when "while they were sleeping" continues. h swiffer d, a great clean doesn't have to take longer. i'm done... i'm going to read one of these. i'm going to read one of these! [ female announcer ] unlike sprays and dust rags, swiffer 360 dusters extender gets into hard to reach places so you can get unbelievable dust pick up in less time. i love that book! can you believe the twin did it? ♪ [ female announcer ] swiffer. great clean in less time. or your money back. ♪
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would want him dead, you know, besides dawn. >> reporter: dawn, dawn oxley, ben's ex-wife, alyssa's mother. gossiper's pointed fingers at melissa, ben's best friends told each other -- >> everything in me said that dawn had something to do with that. >> reporter: of course, just a few years back, that sort of thinking would have been unimaginable to dawn and ben's best friends, scott and cindy graham. not dawn. dawn, the force of nature, the center of any room she was in. >> i don't know if it's manipulating or what, but everybody agreed with dawn. as long as dawn was happy, then we're all happy. >> reporter: but after five years of marriage, neither ben nor dawn was happy. and the marriage went up in flames. >> ben had cheated on dawn. i could see that. this probably wasn't going to be something she was ever going to get over. >> reporter: dawn changed after that, said cindy, didn't seem to want to act like a parent anymore. >> she met a guy and she would stay the night at his house. i mean, when her kids are
calling us up saying we don't have any food in the house, can you come and bring us food, there's a problem. >> reporter: and so when dawn and ben went to court to fight for custody of alyssa, cindy had to tell the truth. >> i told the judge that dawn wasn't taking care of her kids anymore. they weren't a priority. they weren't even number five. >> reporter: when ben won custody of alyssa and more than $200 a month in child support, dawn was devastated. this is her mother, sherry rosten, a retired deputy sheriff. >> she would sit in the garage and just bawl about not -- about not getting her day in court. >> this was eating her alive? >> yeah. it was really taking its toll on her. >> reporter: dawn started drinking heavily. her teenage son, devin, watched his mother fall apart. >> she started to lose jobs. it's like all hell broke loose in her head.
>> reporter: but murder? remember, the police went to see dawn a couple hours after ben was killed, found her fast asleep. >> what time did you think you went to sleep? >> oh, gosh, i watched a movie, "the departed" and "descent." i don't know, about 4:00. >> in fact, she happened to be sharing her bedroom with a 21-year-old family friend named james. >> yeah we watched a movie and went to bed. yeah, that's our story. that's it. >> reporter: not exactly a convincing alibi. any more than the obvious fiction that james, a new man in her life, was just a friend. even less convincing when detective ron elgis learned about a trip to a 7-eleven store, middle of the night, about an hour and a half before the murder. >> why are they hiding little piece that's seem insignificant to what was going on. then we started to do surveillance on them. now they're starting to get worried because they think we're
watching them. >> they show dawn with james and her two daughters, brandy, her 13-year-old daughter from a previous marriage and alyssa, 7 by this time. that's right. a year into the investigation, little alyssa was back with her biological mom who, with ben dead, the courts weaned her back there permanently. so there you are, still trying to grieve the loss of ben at the same time alyssa is being pulled back toward dawn? >> yeah. i lost both of them, truly. >> reporter: and, well, while the police were watching dawn, they were selling them that real suspect is melissa. she confidently told you it was melissa that committed this murder? >> yes. >> reporter: brandy was hearing that from her mother, dawn, you could see was drinking too much, getting duis, spending more than a few nights in jail.
>> they started getting arrested dawn and james both. we were finding reasons to take them to jail. >> reporter: and while they had james, they asked him pointblank about the murder of ben oxley. >> did i kill ben? no. do i know who kill ben? no. did dawn kill ben? no. do i know anything about the murder? no. >> were you and dawn involved in any way in the planning of the murder of ben? >> no. i'm looking you in your eyes. i did not kill him. >> reporter: but that was it. lots of denials. no real evidence. a year and a half had gone by since the murder. it was the summer of 2009. on to cold case territory. >> getting there. >> reporter: then one afternoon, as detective elgis was recovering from a night on the graveyard shift, his cell phone rang. it was dawn oxley. >> she basically said she couldn't take it anymore and she wanted to talk. >> what were you thinking on the way to see her? >> it's about time. >> reporter: the detective drove over to dawn's house.
she was inebriated. >> i didn't hurt him. >> reporter: she had quite a story to tell about james, about how he offered to murder ben. >> the night ben died, he said now or never. and i said no. i said not today. don't do it. no. i said no. i said no. no. no. no. >> reporter: hours later, she said james woke her up from a sound sleep and told her ben was dead. but that, she said, is all he told her. all she knew. >> so you're confident that james had something to do with this? >> i don't know. >> reporter: but is that really all she knew? remember, dawn had a 16-year-old son named devin who detectives learned was at home and listening in the hours before ben oxley was murdered. so if anyone could confirm dawn's version of events, surely it would be devin. but he wasn't talking. not yet anyway. >> coming up, the question haunting this whole case.
>> what's our evidence? >> was there any proof against anyone? prosecutors were about to make a deal to get the evidence they need. >> do you want to talk about this case? >> you know i do. >> when "dateline" continues. so anyway, i've been to a lot of places. you know, i've helped a lot of people save a lot of money. but today...( sfx: loud noise of large metal object hitting the ground) things have been a little strange. (sfx: sound of piano smashing) roadrunner: meep meep. meep meep? (sfx: loud thud sound) what a strange place. geico®. fifteen minutes could save you fifteen percent or more on car insurance.
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of ben oxley's murder, bit by bit, was leaking out. but could dawn's version be believed, that she had nothing to do with it? here's what dawn's mother, sherry, thought. >> i can see her sitting there saying, god, i wish he was dead. >> yeah. >> i can see james going, you want me to go kill him for you and her going whatever? it was more of a disbelief than an affirmation. >> reporter: that's story dawn told, too, she did not want james to kill her ex-husband. >> do you want to talk about this case? >> you know i do. >> okay. >> reporter: it was now the fall of 2009. dawn was in jail for a dui and agreed to talk in more detail about the night of ben oxley's murder. >> and he said do you want me to go do that? i'm sitting there going are you serious? are you kidding me? all i know is he's on the phone. he's asking me if i wanted him to go take care of ben and i was saying no. >> reporter: and then she went to sleep, she said. and the next thing she knew,
james was back. >> he woke me up and he said it's done. i was totally drunk. and then turned around and now i'm waking up out of a dead sleep. and i'm like what the hell are you talking about? he said the cops are going to be here. seriously, right now you're telling me the cops are going to be at my house because my ex-husband is dead? >> reporter: and she did not take part, she swore, not at all. >> i didn't drive. i didn't. i did not go anywhere. i did not plan this. i did not want ben dead. >> reporter: so truth or fiction? there was no solid evidence either way. nor that james killed ben oxley. only dawn's story. at which point, assistant district attorney tom gregory decided he needed her help. >> you love to get everybody involved in the case, but there's a reality in many cases that sometimes you need the help of one of the people involved to
get the main person. >> reporter: and so dawn oxley was offered a limited immunity agreement, cooperate with the prosecution, testify truthfully against james and you won't be prosecuted. a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card. why make that deal with her so soon? you had her statement. why not hold off for a while and be patient and then get them both? >> let's say we don't do the deal with her and we go out and arrest him. what's our evidence? >> reporter: dawn signed the agreement and james was charged with first-degree murder. but the end of the story, oh, no, not even close. the truth had been hiding, but it was itching to come out. young devin, remember him, dawn's son? devin finally decided it was time to reveal what he overheard the night of the murder. >> my mom was like i want ben to die. i just want him dead. and james said i'll go out and kill hill right now.
you just say the word, i'll go out and kill him. she was like a broken record. i want him dead. i want him dead. >> reporter: sound like a woman who was shocked when the murder happened? but there was more. it was after that when james told his attorney, ken stover, it was time to tell the whole story. >> i could tell he was telling the truth. and over the course of 15 months, he's always told the same story. >> reporter: so now comes another story, james' story. not a love story this time. >> nobody could believe that i would do what i did. i had never been a violent person. >> reporter: james did not have an easy start in life. by the time he was a teenager, he was drinking, doing drugs, stealing things. >> i had pretty much given up any hope on continuing successfully in life. >> reporter: dawn, after her marriage to ben, befriended james, made him feel rescued, gave him a place to live. he just been paroled from prison
after doing time for stealing a truck. >> kind of gave me a sense of hope, that there was somebody out there besides my mom who cared. >> reporter: at dawn's house, james discovered what others had. he said, as long as dawn was happy, everybody was happy. and if she wasn't, well, then james could not be happy either. >> she was very, very upset the fact she lost alyssa. >> reporter: and she went on rants, he said, about ben oxley, a man james didn't know, had never met. but he listened. >> you felt like you were in love with her? >> yeah, for a little while. it gave me a sense of feeling wanted. >> reporter: and then he realized, he said, she would never be happy unless he fixed what was upsetting her. >> i just wanted to make dawn happy. >> reporter: so what happened? dawn and james' stories begin the same way. february 20th, 2008, night of heavy drinking at dawn's house, a heated conversation about ben oxley.
james asking dawn if she wants to have him killed? but that's where the stories diverge. dawn, remember, says she told james, no, don't do it and fell asleep on the couch. but that's not james macklian's story. >> she was ecstatic about what happened. she was happy that i was going to kill somebody. >> reporter: it was after midnight. dawn drew him a diagram of ben's house so he could find his way to the bedroom. then he went to the 7-eleven. and drew $40 out of the atm and then they went to the walmart. dawn waited in the car while james did the shopping, shotgun
shells, gloves, a flashlight. >> she was just very happy about it. like you would imagine a kid going to disneyland, you know? >> reporter: but there was a problem. they'd forgotten to bring the diagram. >> the plan wasn't for dawn to go in the house. the plan was for just me to go in the house. i didn't know how to get in. >> or where the bedroom was? >> or where the bedroom was. so dawn had to go inside. >> reporter: the front door was looked, so dawn took him around back where a sliding glass door was unlocked and they eased their way in and walked down the hall. then, said james, dawn pointed him towards the master bedroom. >> and i turned around and she was going into alyssa's room. >> going into the room? >> yeah. she was about -- half her body was into the room. she said she was going to take alyssa with her. i said you can't take alyssa. >> reporter: is this true? remember, alyssa, just 6 years old at the time told police she remembered seeing someone in her doorway. >> i just looked out and i saw somebody walking in. >> reporter: and then said james, he walked into the master bedroom, saw ben and melissa sleeping in the moonlight. >> and i raised the gun.
that's where everything in my mind that should have happened three or four hours ago happened. i started thinking, why am i here? something i heard to my left -- >> a sudden noise? >> yeah. and as i turned and jerked to see what it was, i pulled the trigger. >> reporter: he ran then, he said, left the front door wide open. caught up to dawn with the truck. >> who drove? >> she did. i started yelling at her when we got in the truck. >> reporter: the truth, said james, all of it. >> dawn knows the truth and i know the truth. and that's all that matters. i'm taking full responsibility for what i did. dawn needs to take full responsibility for what she did. >> coming up, was ben the only one who was in danger that night?
we're right over here. >> reporter: it's a rare thing to sit in a jailhouse room such as this while a murderer confesses, chapter and verse, denial of the more common language here. >> i pulled the trigger. >> reporter: but james did not shrink from it. he murdered ben oxley in his sleep and must live with what he did for the rest of his days. >> i'm afraid to deal with what i actually did. >> reporter: he told his story in court last december. it was after the d.a. took the death penalty off the table and james decided to plead guilty. and that's when melissa, sitting
in the courtroom, heard for the first time about something else. james was supposed to kill her, too. >> dawn asked me if i would kill melissa. i just automatically just said yeah. >> there was a bullet there for you. what was it like to hear that? >> unreal. >> do you believe that she was in the house that night? >> i do. which makes me sick. i have a harder time with dawn than i do james. because if it wasn't for her, none of it would happen. >> reporter: and that's where melissa oxley and james's attorney, kent stover, firmly agree. only half a measure of justice. since dawn is protected by that immunity agreement she signed with the d.a. >> james is not the type of boy who's going to go out and commit a murder in the hopes that dawn will find it acceptable. he didn't do this as a surprise gift. >> reporter: dawn herself declined our request for an interview. but her mom, the retired deputy sheriff, has remained in her corner.
>> i know that a lot of people believe that, that it was a blatant conspiracy on her part. but i don't think dawn really wanted ben dead. i don't think dawn was there. >> you're trying to hold it all together. all the way along, and even now. >> you've got to understand. ben was a good guy. they had their problems. everybody loved him. he didn't deserve to die. >> reporter: so for the time being, it's a he said/she said story. and the d.a.'s deal with dawn, to the dismay of james's attorney, means she may never face a murder charge. >> prosecutor made a deal with the devil. now we just need to show him how far in hell she is.
>> reporter: deal with the devil? the d.a. says without dawn's testimony at the preliminary hearing, the murder charge against james would never have stuck. and dawn isn't totally off the hook, because there is one possibility still. if the d.a. can find hard evidence that dawn lied when she was given that get-out-of-jail-free deal for implicating james. >> it's still an open book on dawn oxley for murder. if somebody comes in today with credible evidence that shows she did, in fact, go, we could prosecute her. >> reporter: for now, dawn is in prison on another offense. last year, she pleaded guilty to using her teenage daughter, brandy, to sell prescription drugs. >> was she kind of employing you as her assistant in that business? >> i was driving, yes. >> reporter: dawn could be out in two years, but not to be the mother of alyssa. the judge terminated her
parental rights. both alyssa and brandy live with melissa now. melissa, who has offered them the family life they didn't know with their biological mom. >> it is a family. and that's what i need. >> reporter: one more thing to do. this march, having pleaded guilty to murder, james prepared to be sentenced. is there redemption for a person like you? >> i don't know. i don't expect anybody that i've harmed or hurt to forgive me for what i've done. >> you looked in the lens as you said that. you're talking to them. >> i'm basically talking to melissa. i'm sorry. >> reporter: in exchange for his guilty plea, the d.a. agreed to recommend that james be eligible for parole some day. he's 24 years from now. >> all rise. >> reporter: final decision, up to the judge. defense attorney stover made the
argument. >> a life with hope, judge. >> and then melissa took the stand. >> emotionally, the damage you have caused me is almost unbearable. for alyssa, you crumbled her foundation and everything she knew to be right and true. and as hard as this is to do or believe, i also want you to know i have found it in my heart to forgive you. >> reporter: and then james got his sentence. >> the murder charge, you're sentenced to life in prison. >> life without parole ever. afterwards, the little girl in the middle of the family drama turned to melissa with a remarkable request. alyssa asked to meet with james and was ushered in to see him before he was whisked away. >> i told him that i decided to forgive him and that i wanted
him to have hope. >> reporter: and she wept then. tears of forgiveness. a lingering grief for her father. and as for melissa? are you ready to move on? >> i am. very ready. >> you have a relationship now? you're engaged? >> yeah. >> where will you keep ben? >> he'll always be in my heart. he'll never be forgotten. but we do have to go on. we still have to be here and live a day-to-day life. >> if he's looking down and watching you, what would he think about his daughter? >> i think he still loves me and that i am doing much better than i was at my other house. >> you miss him? >> yeah, i miss him a lot. >> you're a pretty strong kid, aren't you? >> yeah.